Striking the right balance of personal privacy and public transparency has long been a concern for those who work in the public sector. This dilemma has been on full display recently with the Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis being accused of having a secret romantic relationship with Nathan Wade, whom she hired as a special prosecutor against former president Donald Trump.
These unfolding events led us here at CivicPulse to wonder: if the affair did occur, and if other elected officials knew about it, would they have a responsibility to disclose? As it turns out, in a recent national survey of local elected officials, CivicPulse asked about exactly this scenario. In collaboration with Drs. David Redlawsk at the University of Delaware and Annemarie Walter at the University of Nottingham, we asked officials what they would do if they found out about a secret romantic relationship between two other officials. Would they make the relationship public or keep it a secret even if it may lead to conflicts of interest?
The overwhelming response was that officials would not share this information. Two-thirds of officials reported that they would keep it secret, while only one-third said that they would make it public.
Why would so many respondents keep a secret for their colleagues? One reason could be that local elected officials are, well, people. And people often fall in love at work. According to a recent survey commissioned by Forbes, over 60% of employed Americans have had a workplace romance and 43% have married someone they worked with.
But while local elected officials are indeed people, their responsibilities are unlike most others. They ultimately serve at the pleasure of the public, and transparency is a cornerstone of democracy. So what other reasons might impede their decision to report the situation?
Another reason that came up was concerns over how such a disclosure would impact the functioning of local government itself. Many officials may favor keeping the issue quiet and resolving any potential conflict of interest internally to avoid compromising their ability to work effectively with the implicated parties.
Still others may worry about the harm that such a disclosure would have on other members of the public. This reasoning was highlighted in a follow-up response by an elected county commissioner in Minnesota, who told us:
“My convictions to serve the community by doing no harm to an individual or a group are very strong. The first question about a romantic relationship isn't a yes or no but, I would confront the individuals. Just going public in that instance would cause harm to not only them but their families and friends so suggesting a different approach supports my strong values.”
We don’t know all the facts yet about the Fulton County situation. In the final analysis, what the right course of action would have been will likely become clear. But regardless, the range of attitudes the current situation elicits among local officials points to a broader tension that such leaders face when navigating questions of others’ impropriety. These officials serve local communities with real lives on the line, and they often have to weigh the principle of transparency against a range of other adverse impacts that such disclosures may cause.
To those of you who may face such a dilemma down the road, good luck!
The research underlying this brief was built on data from a national random-sample of 163 elected policymakers from local governments (i.e., township, municipality, and county governments) with a population of 1,000 or more. The survey was developed in collaboration with Dr. David Redlawsk at the University of Delaware and Dr. Annemarie Walter at the University of Nottingham, and was implemented by CivicPulse.
Below is the question wording for the survey item that was used:
Imagine you accidentally find out there is a secret romantic relationship between two other elected officials who serve with you. You know this may lead to conflicts of interest. Knowing this, would you:
Make the relationship public
Keep the information you’ve learned private
Nathan Lee, PhD
Managing Director of CivicPulse